Our Cars : Project Tomcat

Here at AROnline we’ve always had a thing for Rover R8s and so, at last, it’s nice to be offered the chance to bring a Tomcat back to health – we’re looking forward to finding out what all the fuss is about.

Keith Adams came across this one in the ‘For sale and wanted’ area of this site’s forum – looking forlorn and in need of some tender, loving care…

Saving a Tomcat from the crusher

Yes, there’s one or two bits missing…

THE for sale notice on the AROnline forum initially looked extremely unpromising – a pair of Tomcats were being sold for spares or repairs and the advertiser, Rover fan Tim Burgess, reckoned that one good car could be built out of the pair. The first had been in a front end crash, while the other one had gearbox issues. ‘The BRG one is a standard 1.6 Coupe (no rear spoiler) but it has the rare factory option of air conditioning,’ he said. However, it was easy to decide against the car in light of this – ‘It’s a runner but has no MoT or Tax and requires a clutch. This car has done under 70,000 miles and has a full service history, including a new head gasket. The laquer has started to flake off on the bonnet and it has a dent in the bootlid.’

There was no way I was going to buy this one – not with an impending job change which meant the loss of regular access to a fully-equipped workshop, a resto in Poland that needs paying for and a domestic situation that’s not conducive to having a collection of scrap cars laying around the place. I mean, what kind of a mug am I?

I just ignored the ad – and waited for a follow-up message to say the cars had been sold. Days passed and, although the silver one had been snapped up, the BRG alternative remained unsold. However, when Tim added a note a few days later to say that the clutch had been sorted by the simple fitment of a new cable, I stupidly began to pay attention again – but I guessed that the car would be snapped up at this point. Except that it wasn’t.

After a couple more weeks, I gave Tim a call and asked him what had happened to the BRG Tomcat. ‘Still here,’ he said. ‘I had a bit of a moment in my own car so bought this one and robbed it for a few panels but need to sell it on – I think it’s too good to scrap,’ he went on. The subsequent conversation revealed that he’d removed the bonnet, bumper and headlights, and would let the rest of it go for a song.

The paint quality appears to have vastly improved on this late-spec Coupe

That’s why, a couple of weeks later, I found myself heading down to Wickwar in Gloucestershire in my Subaru Outback with a 15-ft car trailer in tow. Tim had taken the car to AE Wilcox, an ex-MG Rover Dealer which remains very much a specialist in the marque – and there it remained around the back, awaiting its new owner. A E Wilcox’s showroom may now be full of Citroens and Daihatsus but a wander around the back is a step back in time and a real treat if you like your Iron British flavoured.

There’s a 75 V8 in there, several other late MG Rovers, as well as a dust-covered 1964 Mini Cooper. Joy. The place obviously serves the local community well because it’s hard to escape the fact that Wickwar has an unusually high number of 25s, 45s, and 75s dotted along the High Street – and, in the main, they look loved and cherished. It’s a shame to think that, in the coming years, these will end up being replaced by other marques.

The first time I set eyes on the Tomcat, I sighed inwardly. To say it looked sad would be an understatement. The car was covered in filth and the engine bay was open to the elements. Not only that, all four tyres were flat – and looked terminally damaged – and the dent in the boot lid was corroding nicely. The salesman who led me through to the car asked me whether I was taking it away for scrap. I replied in the negative. He just said ‘Ah…’ and raised his eyebrows. Obviously he wasn’t as in tune with the bottom end of the market as me – either that or he knows when to say enough is enough.

Still, I gave the keyfob’s unlock button a squeeze, expecting nothing to happen, but was pleasantly surprised when the doors opened for me. That surprise turned to shock when I climbed in, turned the key and the engine fired into life – albeit noisily and running on three cylinders. Yes, this Tomcat really was a runner.

I somehow managed to drive the car on its four flat tyres down the yard and onto my trailer although, by the time it had climbed aboard, there was a strong smell of burned clutch lining (yes, it took revs and bestial driving to get it up there) but at least it was now mobile. Ten minutes faffing around with straps and we were on our way back North. The journey back wasn’t exactly delightful – Fridays on UK motorways are always a joke – and the intermittent rain’s effect on my open engine bay made me nervous but, after three hours’ slog we were home and ready to unload the Tomcat.

Interior is in one piece, and all appears to be working – we’re missing a head unit, though.

Well almost ready – if, like me, you live in a typical UK residential street, you’ll already know about the joys of parking spaces (or the lack of them) and how protective people are of the gap outside their own homes. I thanked the gods that there was actually a gap big enough for my Subaru/trailer combo near my driveway – but, as I started to unload, one of my nice friendly neighbours turned up and told me to piss off. Ah, the joys of life south of Watford Gap. A spin round the block and a second attempt met with a more favourable response – even if the location was a little less handy (a hundred metres up the street).

The intermittent rain had by now become a downpour but, miracle among miracles, the old girl fired up and I gingerly drove her (on four flat tyres, remember) onto my drive and into the protective bosom of my garage. The next time this car moves, it will either be in pieces heading for the local scrapyard or, more likely, repaired and heading off for a new MoT.

I pulled out the Tomcat and began to weigh up the job the following day. Luckily I had a couple of sets of R8 alloys knocking around and so stuck on a set of five-spoke RoverSports sitting on nearly new Continentals until I can get some new tyres on the original wheels.. They don’t exactly look right but, if I’m honest, that’s the least of this car’s problems. Anyway, at least it’s mobile now.

A minute examination of the paintwork revealed that there was nothing to complain about and, if anything, it looks higher quality than any of the older R8s I’ve owned in the past. It’s deep and even and, when polished, has a reflective quality that’s rarely found on such an outwardly unloved car. A quick check and clean-up of the plugs and leads and the engine was running on four cylinders but with a low-rev misfire which will, hopefully, be cured with the fitment of a new distributor cap. I did notice a missing vaccum pipe (actually that was the washer pipe – Ed) so, if anyone knows where that’s supposed to go, please let me know.

Before listing all the parts needed to get this car back on the road, I combed the service history for clues about its previous owners. For one, it received a new cylinder head, gasket set, head bolts, cambelt, water pump, radiator, inlet manifold gasket and thermostat housing within the last 18 months – so, assuming they were fitted correctly, there shouldn’t be too many engine woes to worry about in future months. The mileage of 68,885 is favourable, too – as is the presence of the air conditioning system, which appears to be working…

Three of the four plugs were seriously oiled up and the oil level was close to minimum. That could be significant, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on things as I put it all back together.

So what do we actually need to complete?

1) Bonnet
2) Headlamps, indicators and fitting brackets
3) Front bumper and fitting brackets
4) Gear lever gaiter
5) Roof gutter trim
6) Rear lamp clusters – the originals were sprayed with tint (ugh!)

So, if you have any parts that fit the bill, we’d love to hear from you… saving this Tomcat from the jaws of the crusher seems like a worthwhile thing to do. Let’s hope we can make it happen.

The bootlid is slightly creased – a replacement with a spoiler would be nice…

Ripple in the roof should be easily sorted.

Where should this missing vacuum pipe go?

Missing trim is unsightly.

Bumper fitting brackets would be nice.

Air con will need re-gassing, but everything looks complete.

216 GTi bumper is temporary. Honestly.

Update – 21 July 2008

The Tomcat now has a front end… result!

IT’S amazing how much you can achieve when the irritation of work isn’t there to get in the way of having fun. I’ve just spent the day working on my Tomcat and the results are, shall we say, rather positive. There’s still some way to go, of course, but at least the thing looks like a car now…

A trip to the local scrapyard (Frank Beale’s in Desborough, Northamptonshire) netted something of a result – just before I turned up, an N-plate 420SLi in BRG had been rolled in and from, what I could see, there was no reason, other than a smashed rear window, for it to be there. Are cars scrapped for this kind of thing these days? Anyway, I had a look around the car, only to find that the HAM code bonnet was in near-perfect condition and much of the front end trim was also still in place. How much did he want for that lot? £20, squire.

We’ve found a suitable donor car…

A quick session with a 10mm socket and driver bagged that (as well as those all important headlamp surround pieces and some missing bumper bracketry) and, before you could say Bob’s your Uncle, I was on my way home, smiling.

By the time the bonnet was fitted to Project Tomcat, I was already wondering why on Earth I didn’t pick up some headlights while I was at it. Ah, because Frank wanted £20 a piece for them and I thought it could be prudent to do a little shopping. A quick trip to a smaller yard near Wellingborough and, after a couple of minutes, I’d negotiated a pair for £20. Again, a result…

After another hour or so, the headlamps, indicators and bumpers were fitted and the car now looked complete – even with a dated looking Tempest Grey bumper from an old S2N 216GTi. Given time, we’ll have a Tomcat bumper on the front. Watch this space.

As you can see, the gear selector gaiter looks rather dog eared.

We’ve filled the hole, but this will need upgrading!

We’ve fitted these early spec lamp clusters. They are place holders…

RoverSport alloys have polished up a treat.

Lights and bumper took time to align correctly.

This’ll need to go.

Update – 24 July 2008

Doesn’t it look better with the correct bumper on it?

Another couple of days, and we’ve made cracking progress with Project Tomcat. Saved from the crusher a mere five days ago and, much to the annoyance of the neighbours who must have thought I was opening up a vehicle dismantling business at home, our perky Rover is now looking almost fit for the road.

Obviously the grey 1990-spec front bumper needed to go. My mate Jason from the Practical Classics forum came up with the goods, dropping me a line to say, “Keith, I’ve got the Tomcat bumper with the fogs for you.” Music to my ears…. A quick call confirmed it to be a Nightfire Red Tomcat bumper that had been lying around in his garage for quite some time so we struck a deal at £20 – so long as I could go to Jason’s place in Dunstable and collect it.

Dunstable’s less than an hour away from my place and, as there was a brand spanking new Ford Focus ECONetic sitting on my drive, it seemed rude not to seize the moment and collect the bumper sooner rather than later. That’s why, the following day, I found myself heading up the M1 mentally preparing myself for an afternoon of sanding, priming and spraying.

The bumper’s in cracking condition, with only a couple of missing fixing screws to worry about. There are one or two scuffs on the black rubbing strips but these don’t look deep and should polish up a treat. The rest of the bumper’s fine – with no splits or cracks to worry about and, by the time I get it home, after picking up some primer and BRG paint, it’s looking like a straightforward afternoon’s work to get it together.

Focus ECONetic was a great car in which to go and collect our Nightfire Red Tomcat bumper.

Ready to be rubbed down, primed and painted.

The one thing that strikes me about the Tomcat bumper is how heavy it is compared with the earlier one – yes, there’s a crash structure built-in, but it must weigh at least three times as much as the original. The comment left by Ben Adams in the feedback section about producing a Club Sport version is actually spot on – take your Tomcat on a track day and changing the bumper could save you three-tenths per lap.

Primed and sprayed, the bumper fits a treat and, as you can see from the picture above, our Tomcat looks quite good now. The paint will need rubbing down again and then lacquering but fitting it early was irresistible… I needed to see the car complete.

Another pleasant surprise greeted me this morning, too. A parcel from Tim Burgess, the guy who sold me the Tomcat, arrived. Tim had sent me the missing roof trim and a gear gaiter/knob so that’s two less things to worry about getting hold of… Cheers, Tim.

New gear gaiter and knob a big improvement…

What’s left to do now?

1) Bootlid with spoiler
2) Driver’s exterior door handle
3) Engine service and MoT
4) A decent head unit
5) Aerial (the screw-in type)
6) Smoked rear lamp clusters/side repeaters
7) Tap out the dent in the roof

Update – 28 July 2008

OZ SuperTouring wheels look good, but do they suit the Tomcat?

IT’S been quiet on the Tomcat front due to a sudden influx of work and I’ve not had much chance to look at servicing the K-Series but I did find the time to swap the wheels. The originals were, as you may recall, shod with four ruined tyres so I fitted a set of RoverSports that had been kicking around since the misadventure with the car I’d bought wearing a set – a 416Si that lasted just longer than the trip down from Washington from where I had collected the car.

However, those wheels should adorn a 216GTi and, on just about anything else, they look wrong so I pulled out the OZs from their storage place and bolted them on for effect. I reckon they look pretty good. Leaving them on the car seems like the obvious thing to do – but what do you think?

You may also notice that there’s now a set of correct rear lamp clusters on the Coupe. Not new, though – these were the original spray-tinted items. It took a lot of T-Cut and elbow grease to get the gunk off but the end result was worth all the effort.

Update – 25 January 2009

Just because there’s another Tomcat in the AROnline fleet, it doesn’t mean that the original project car has gone away. No siree – in fact, since the last update (shockingly over six months ago), there has been some progress. Just not the sort of progress that we were hoping.

After getting the cosmetics all sorted, I decided it was time to get the car down to the MoT station in order to make it all legal before enjoying it throughout the remaining summer months. As far as I could see, all that I needed to worry about was a misfire, and before dropping it in for the test, I asked my regular tame mechanic for a second opinion on what the problem could be. After all, the paperwork that came with the confirmed that the headgasket had been replaced about a year previously, and while it was all apart, the head itself had been skimmed and reconditioned. There was evidence that an MLS gasket had been used, so that was good enough for me.

But still there were nagging doubts about the misfire.

A ‘phone call soon had me a little down about the whole thing. The result from a cursory examination was that there was no compression in cylinder three, and because of that, no way would it be passing an MoT any time soon. A question posted on the AROnline forums soon confirmed my misery – it looked like the cylinder liner had slipped (not an uncommon problem with later 1.6-litre K-Series engines), and that meant some drastic surgery would be required. Ah well.

So for several weeks, I put it out of my mind, and concentrated on other things.

However, burying your head in the sand is never a good thing – and it was down to Trevor Hallworth, owner of my old 216GTi, and fellow R8 enthusiast, to shake me to my senses again. He’d kindly picked up a replacement bootlid for the Tomcat, and we came up with a plan to get it to me – it involved sticking it in the back of a Rover Sterling I bought from Sterling Automotive, and which Trevor borrowed while his car had been left at the garage for bodywork repairs. Basically, he passed on the bootlid to me, and reminded me of how nice the Tomcat is – and that it should be fixed and returned to the road.

So, the situation with the Tomcat is this – I need to find a healthy 1.6-litre K-Series engine to go in. Or, I need to rebuild the one that’s in it. Given that the car has a mere 60,000 miles on it, perhaps repair is the way forwards. But I just don’t know.

What do you guys think? Repair the existing engine, or replace it with something unknown?

Oh, and is anyone out there willing to take on the job?

The Tomcat’s now awaiting drastic surgery…

Update – 16 May 2009

Just in case anyone was wondering whether the 216 Tomcat’s still in one piece, I thought I’d reassure them that the car is still around, and still being looked after. I’m still as undecided now as I was last summer about what to do with the engine. Head says drop another one in, heart says repair the existing one with 60,000 miles on the clock. This decision has been helped by two kind offers that are on the table: Brian Gunn says he will rebuild this one, if I remove the engine and take it to him; Steven Ward says if I get the car up to him, he will replace the engine for a good working one. Decisions, decisions…

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking after the more important matters. Like the cosmetics. Yeah, I know. Last summer, before the full implications of the rough-running K-Series had hit, Trevor Hallworth had offered me a replacement bootlid for £50. I said ‘yes’ and wired him the money. Then the engine dilemma reared its ugly head, and I put the idea on the backburner. Later on last year, when I picked up an 827 Sterling from him, he’d left the lid in the boot.

So, once home, it was placed carefully in the shed (the one in the garden, I mean) and was forgotten about.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided it might be a good idea to fit the damned thing. As you can see it’s on now, and looks absolutely great. I reckon it must now be one of the nicest looking Tomcats around. Okay, so it doesn’t run, but that’s a minor detail.

I’d mentioned in a forum post that the Tomcat’s boot has been sorted. To which Trevor replied, ‘want a leather interior’? And I said ‘yes’. History is repeating itself, and isn’t denial a really bad personality trait?

Rover Tomcat looks great, but still doesn't run
Looks better now. Shame it still doesn’t run!

Keith Adams

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